Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The president is right about Baltimore. Are Democrats really prepared to defend failure?

By James S. Robbins, Opinion columnist | USA TODAY

Baltimore is one of the least livable, most dangerous cities in America. It's not racist to point that out.

Ask yourself honestly: Would you ever consider living in West Baltimore? And are you a racist if you say no?

Baltimore ranks in the top 10 of the least livable cities in America. Until this week, it was not controversial to point that out. But now that President Donald Trump has tweeted about Baltimore, it seems as though anyone who criticizes the awful conditions there is opening themselves up to charges of prejudice.

The flap began last week when Rep. Elijah Cummings, whose 7th district covers much of Baltimore City, lashed out at acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan at a hearing on conditions inside illegal alien detention centers. “What does that mean when a child is sitting in their own feces, can’t take a shower?” Cummings shouted. “Come on, man. What’s that about?”

President Trump responded with tweets saying Cummings’ district was “FAR WORSE and more dangerous” than the detention facilities, “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” The president suggested Cummings focus more on cleaning up this “dangerous & filthy place” than on bullying in hearings about the border issue. 

The president’s remarks were immediately denounced as racist by Democrats and the usual frantic pundits, even though the tweets had no racial content. Trump responded that “Democrats always play the Race Card, when in fact they have done so little for our Nation’s great African American people.”

More on Cummings' story:Donald Trump's depressing racist vitriol brings out the worst in too many Americans

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said Sunday that it was “unbelievable that we have a president of the United States who attacks American cities.” But it was perfectly fine four years ago when Sanders said during a visit to West Baltimore, "Anyone who took the walk that we took around this neighborhood … would think that you were in a Third World country." 

Sanders’ comment came in the wake of riots sparked by death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. Articles from that period routinely cited the city’s endemic poverty as a root cause of the rioting. A typical 2015 report from the Associated Press noted that Baltimore “struggles daily with pervasive poverty and widespread joblessness, failing schools, drug addiction, a crumbling infrastructure and corruption.”

President Barack Obama said then that difficult conditions in Baltimore required national “soul searching” — because the $1.8 billion stimulus bonanza he had lavished on the city didn’t seem to solve anything. 

Many Americans probably imagine West Baltimore as the gritty, open-air drug mart  portrayed in HBO's “The Wire,” and they aren’t that far off. Last year, USA TODAY reported that “Baltimore is the nation's most dangerous big city.”

The poverty rate is over 22%, and the population is shrinking. The city’s politics are riven with endemic corruption — former Mayor Catherine Pugh resigned in disgrace this May. She's the third Baltimore mayor in a row to leave in the wake of intense scandal. Baltimore is dotted with thousands of vacant buildings, and as for rodents, exterminator Orkin listed Baltimore in the top 10 of its annual survey of “rattiest cities.” The 1970s promotional nickname “Charm City” is as ironic as ever.

The city's premier newspaper failed to represent its own territory accurately.

The Baltimore Sun rose gamely to the city’s defense against President Trump, editorializing that Baltimore is better than you think, citing inter alia “the beauty of the Inner Harbor or the proud history of Fort McHenry.” (Note that the gentrified Inner Harbor neighborhood is one of the whitest neighborhoods in the city at 68%, so maybe not a great example for the Sun’s purposes.)

“If there are problems here, rodents included,”the newspaper claimed, “they are as much (Trump’s) responsibility as anyone’s, perhaps more because he holds the most powerful office in the land.”

It is a bit of a reach to argue a president in office since 2017 bears more responsibility for city sanitation issues than the local congressman elected to his safe seat in 1996. Maybe the people of the 7th district just need a more effective champion.

It’s hard to say when this latest tweet-based freakout will subside. Will Democrats carry the #WeAreAllBaltimore banner into the 2020 election? Is Baltimore now the model city they will present to the country as the representative product of Democratic social and economic policies in action? Good luck with that.

Critics can continue to shout about racism, but that is no replacement for a rational discussion about the problems of poverty, crime, drug abuse, family breakdown and lack of educational attainment. A job-creating economy will do more in the long run to help the people of Baltimore than endless political posturing about race. It probably already has.

James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and author of "Erasing America: Losing Our Future by Destroying Our Past," has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins